Some time ago I wrote about reading “The Wartime Diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly”, a title which would no doubt, and quite unnecessarily put some people off. I found it to be well written, and very informative source of a wider understanding of the Second World War than many other war accounts I have read.
This time I am writing about another book which runs along similar lines (no pun intended – see the title above). Anita Leslie was another person born into a titled family who sought something to do in the Second World War where she might see some action. She had an aversion to the conventional women’s services as they were not allowed to be put in front line situations. There were many besides Anita Leslie who thought that nurses, for example, would do a great deal of good for wounded soldiers if they could staff forward posts, but the powers that were would not allow it. Initially she joined the Mechanised Transport Corps and got as far as the Middle East via South Africa. Alas, the corps, or her part of it, was disbanded and its members offered the chance of joining the ATS, but Anita Leslie was having none of that and struck out on her own, initially with the Red Cross, but eventually as an enlisted woman in the Fee French Army, where she was an ambulance driver. Despite her rather hit and miss education she spoke fluent French which probably helped her in her application. Then she really did see, not action directly, but the immediate results of it often watched or heard from a distance, and she saw sights that would have reduced less tough people to helplessness. This work took her through the Vosges Mountains and into Alsace where she saw all the fighting to recapture Colmar and the surrounding area. We our selves have visited Colmar but we did not pick up any suggestion that it had been fought over with such ferocity.
These two books give one a view of the war seldom or never covered by the media. For UK media the latter part of the war was all Normandy invasion, and still is, and it sometimes appears that once that was achieved the rest – the next 11 months were all a cakewalk, a tidying up operation. True, Arnhem did not go very well, and the Battle of the Bulge, was a bit of an unsporting attempt of the Germans to hold up progress, but really it was all a foregone conclusion. Italy doesn’t get mentioned much, and once VE Day had happened the war in the Far East was discovered, but was too far away to get the immediacy of coverage that the Eurpean war attracted.
A third book which complements those above is Endell Street, the story of two female Doctors before and after the First World War and the work that they and others did in tending the wounded and setting up a hospital in London (in the street named in the title). Apart from its intrinsic value on the medical front, it records very well the extraordinary views of some male authorities that women could no do this sort of work, even though they were actually doing it, were being visited by all sorts of notable people, medical and otherwise, and extensively reported in the papers. The refusal of some people to see what is in plain sight is mind blowing. At the end of the war the hospital in Endell Street was peremptorily ordered to close. The Doctors and Nurses were dispersed. Some never worked again in medicine, others found posts where they could and laboured on in anonymity.